Welcome to the Film Room Five! This is a weekly column I’ve run for some time across a whole hoard of NFL and College Football sites. Now, I’m bringing it to the other football. This is where I unload my notebook from a week of watching games and point things of interest from across the league or some wider trends across the sport. Bringing it to Serpents, there will be a couple of Inter notes per week, but I hope to give a greater feel for Serie A as a whole.
Hold the base
The debut game of Inter’s season was overwhelmingly positive.
Still: there were issues. The midfield looked disjointed and consistently failed to provide a base for the team’s makeshift defence.
Sensi and Vecino were given free roles. Sensi proved through preseason he can thrive in that role. Vecino isn’t Sensi. He’s sloppy with the ball and fails to track runners who press beyond the midfield. Both got caught up field against Lecce, exposing Brozovic one-on-one in space or allowing overloads in front of the back three.
Vecino was the worst offender:
Allowing the two midfielders either side of Brozovic to roam and create is important. They need to attack the half spaces and squeeze between the pair of forwards. But it’s a balancing act. If both begin to abandon their posts, sides can easily overload the middle:
Asamoah forces the issue, too. He is brilliant going forward, a smart, instinctive wide-player who knows when to press to the byline, shuttle-and-go, or slide inside to distort the levels of the defensive back line.
He was literally pinned up on the touchline right in front of the Lecce box. He is truly a winger, less a wingback. Look at his heat map:
Candreva offered similar service on the right side, though tucked a little further back. Both served as constant get-out-of-jail free cards. Whenever Lecce pressured the back line, they were there.
You can’t have both, though. The midfield duo cannot shuffle forward into the half spaces - at the same time – while the two wingbacks pin the touchline. It leaves an ocean of space for Brozovic to cover. Too often on Monday he was overwhelmed or a tick too slow to react.
As Inter expanded, Lecce contracted. Counters sprung. Lecce should have scored.
There needs to be more joined up thinking. That should come with time. When ones moves and probes, the other must sit, watch, and protect. By positive, sure. But don’t advance beyond Asamoah or Candreva. The two wing backs roles are essential. Providing that depth and width is a must. It’s incumbent on Sensi and Vecino and Barella and whoever else to know when a 3-1-6 (the look with both in half spaces) should be used, and when a 3-2-5 is more suitable.
Luis Alberto, playing at his own pace
It’s always fun to watch a player turn a physically ingrained weakness into a tool. Nobody does that quite like Luis Alberto.
Alberto doesn’t have pace. He doesn’t have the springs to pogo stick by a defender and attack open space. He gets by with smarts and guile and a quick-twitch brain that lets him think a step or two ahead of everyone else.
He is kind of sort of agile. He can take two or three touches in the time you can take one or two steps. Alberto knows how to leverage that into an advantage. He’s a tease. You see the ball, you go for it, and by the time the brain has sent the signals to your legs, he’s nudged it just a little farther. In full-flight, it’s damn near impossible to stop. Alberto can break the lines, get his head up, and pick out runners attacking a fractured defence. The only other option: bring him down:
Alberto is the fulcrum of everything Lazio does in its build-up play. He is the guy who can slither through small nooks and unlock a tightly bound defence. He drifts from here to there, but always with a good understanding of his defensive responsibilities and how his position relates to the remaining geography of the pitch. He’s not a luxury number 10 shoved back a couple of spots doing his own thing. He knows that by moving the position X, his teammate will do Y, and the defence will counter with Z. He’s always bringing balance and order to an attack that can be frenetic and disjointed.
One of the highlights of Matchday one was watching Alberto pick Sampdoria apart. He finished the game with two assists and completed 94 percent of his passes.
Samp came into the game focusing on Alberto. Cut out long balls over the top, pin Alberto to one position in the middle of the field -- with bevy of defenders shuttling around him -- and you will stop Lazio, the theory goes.
Lazio have found a nice way of counterbalancing Alberto’s lack of burst by accentuating his vision and passing brilliance. Alberto is surrounded by a hoard of speedsters: Immobile, Correa, Milinkovic-Savic, Lulic, and Lazzari. They all play hard and run like hell.
(quick aside: Correa’s off-ball and on-ball vision has really gone to another level. He makes smart runs, knows when to attack space and back-up to create space, and has been better at finding runners at unusual angles. Correa is just a different player than his early days – young guys develop. Stunning.)
Lazio break quick and stun opponents. If you can’t enjoy Alberto leading the charge on a fast break, why even watch this thing?
Watch him nip the ball away, accelerate, then slow the tempo. That’s where he’s comfortable: sitting in the pockets between the lines while pacey players orbit all around.
Alberto holds the ball. He’s waiting for support. Immobile and Correa join the attack. Then, he did that thing. Did you catch it?
One touch to get it out your feat. Then, bang! Right? No!
Watch it again. Alberto takes an extra touch. An extra beat. The plays slides from R&B to jazz. The defender sticks his leg out to block a pass because that’s when Alberto is supposed to pass. But he doesn’t, not this little magician. He takes a touch, because why in the hell not?
It gave him a better sightline to squeeze the ball through to Correa who wrapped up the counter-attack.
When those destructive, fast breaks don’t work, however, Lazio rely on Alberto to pick the lock. He modulates the tempo. Demands the ball. And he’s always finding space:
Look how pissed he is that he didn’t get the ball first time. No bother. He shuffles into fresh space, spreading the lines vertically. Then he gathers the ball and moves the ball vertically between the lines again. It looks simple, but only because he makes it look simple. The best conductors always do.
That knee. That touch. That ball. That is spicy. Finding players who play at their own pace that aren’t out of place is a rare quality. Alberto has it.
Napoli, staying patient
Napoli-Fiorentina was a barn burner. There were seven goals. There was a dodgy VAR decision. There was Franck Ribery.
There was also an interesting tactical tussle. Fiorentina played with a super, duper high line of engagement. And they pressed like maniacs.
Look at these lines!
Look at this press!
This, of course, is aided by the new rule that allows an attacking player to enter the box at goal kicks. That aids attacking teams playing out from the back. But it also encourages teams who play with a high-press to charge harder towards the six-yard box and engage higher.
Napoli struggled with it early on. They were sloppy. Koulibaly consistently gave the ball away cheaply. I mean, what even is this?
Playing out of a press requires patience and concentration. If you can play through it, a team is completely exposed. But some, like Napoli early, decide to up the speed themselves.
Everything Napoli’s backline did was done at warp speed. They got even sloppier. They gifted the ball away more in their own half. It was a mess:
It’s hard to sustain that through 90-minutes, though. Fiorentina tried. The high press and high line of engagement remained – though with a noticeable drop when Boateng entered the field. But it wasn’t any error that cost the side.
Napoli grew more patient as the game went on. Fiorentina’s intensity remained, but Napoli refused to meet it.
It took about an hour:
Once you break the initial line, by skill or luck (as above) an attack becomes a series of 3-vs-3s or 4-vs-4s.
Patience led to Napoli’s match-winner:
When the ball is poked through Fiorentina’s press, the team is caught with eight men ahead of the ball. Nobody downloads such openings as ruthlessly as Ancelotti’s Napoli.
Teams are still trying to adjust to this year’s new rule changes. It’s fascinating to watch it happen in real time.
Conte, first-time channel balls
Get used to it, because you’re going to be seeing it a bunch.
Conte is a fan of “periodization”. In short: pre-set patterns of movements to unlock specific defensive constructs. Basically, if a defence sets up like this, we hit them with that. It takes some of the instinctiveness out of attacking play and hits opponents with movements that should best exploit their weaknesses.
One that Conte uses to break down any and all looks is quick, whipped balls down the channel. Then the strikers get to go chase. Attackers know to be ready for it at all times, midfielders don’t even have to look or check, they just ping it down there and
hope anticipate the best.
Early in preseason it looked like this:
That’s the most common look. The midfielders set up for it. He’s asking for the right weight from the wide man so that he can hit a sand wedge first time. Against Lecce, it was much of the same.
One tidbit to monitor: watch the difference when the opponent pens in deep rather than playing with a high-block.
Lukaku pins onto the back man, backs him down, and then looks to turn and spin behind, just as he would if the ball was played to feet. Interesting.
Erik Pulgar, up-and-down
Here are some numbers from Erik Pulgar’s official debut for Fiorentina against Napoli: one goal; one assist; 80 touches; six key passes; three tackles won; two interceptions; two clearances.
And here’s his touch map:
Read those two things and his game becomes pretty easy to visualize: an all-around midfielder who bossed a game against a good team with an excellent midfield.
But that’s not right. Pulgar was up-and-down against Napoli. At his best, he’s pretty damn impressive: a line-breaking midfielder with a nice array of passing and even better vision.
Beautiful, sweeping passes: Check.
Beat a man, read on the run, play the ball: Check.
But Pulgar can also be sloppy. He was less than a foot away from gifting one of the easiest goals of the season. His awareness lacking; he knew what he wanted to do before he even received the ball, everyone else be damned.
And this. This is, umm, something:
I can’t even figure out what his best-case scenario was there.
There’s plenty for Fiorentina for Vincenzo Montella to work with, though. Pulgar does a nice job distorting the lines of a defence. He never gets caught on a defenders hip. He either sits deep and pings passes, or moves beyond the midfield line and attacks space.
There’s no better trait for a technical midfielder. Still: Pulgar remains an interesting stat vs. eye-test guy.